|The Battle of Actium (Lorenzo Castro, 1672)|
This is an example of ekphrasis, or the detailed description of an object, which usually has scenes of some kind sculpted or painted upon it. We have seen this in the case of the Temple of Juno, for example, where scenes of the Trojan War present themselves. But the shield given to Aeneas is a highly conscious imitation of a similar shield fashioned by the Greek version of the same god, Hephaestus. The arms he makes for Achilles will be carried into battle against the Trojans, so the rivalry seems to transcend merely the question of a literary technique. There is something here that speaks about the difference between Homeric and Vergilian views of human history.
You were sent a copy of Stanley Lombardo's translation of the shield of Achilles from Iliad 18. (You can get a hold of it here.) Notice how precise the vignettes are that Hephaestus fashions on the shield; and yet, do you know the names of the cities or peoples involved? And what of the astrological and agricultural elements? And why does it end with a scene of dancing? This is a war shield, brought into battle at the climax of the poem. What does it mean that Achilles bears it into battle? Can you tell?
Now look at the shield of Aeneas on pp. 252-256. (This powerpoint will map out the topics of Roman history as they appear.) Here we see a predictable series of Roman heroes, beginning with Romulus and the early history of Roman kings. On p. 253, we switch to early Republican history, right at the moment that the Etruscan king Lars Porsenna is besieging Rome. The Romans loved this moment of their early history, when supposedly the kings of Italy had to take notice of this plucky city state now ruled by free men who refused to bow down any longer to kings. Porsenna seems to embody this amazement, as he is "imaged there / to the life, a menacing man, a man in anger / At Roman daring" (253). There follows an incident of later Republican history, when the Gauls sacked Rome around 390 BCE--but never were able to take the citadel on the Capitoline Hill, the sacred center of the city.
These two episodes together suggest moments of utmost peril for the Roman people, which in hindsight they can enjoy for what they say of Roman character under fire. Mixed among other images at lines 901-905, we see the traitor Catiline punished for attempting to overthrow the whole Roman government in the 60s BCE, an event that occurred only forty some years before Vergil was writing (in the 20s BCE). He is tortured in deepest Tartarus, like mythical malefactors of Greek epic.
At long last by line 912, we have arrived at the center of the shield where for a full page and a half (until line 965) we have a glorious description of the battle of Actium in 31 BCE. This battle is central to Augustan propaganda, as it was the event that put Octavian (who was given the grand but vague title Augustus, "the illustrious," by the Senate in 27 BCE) in a position to dominate politics without any rivalry, all at the age of 32. Victory in this instance meant doing away with a powerful older rival, Mark Antony, one of Julius Caesar's most trusted officers, whose power and popularity initially overshadowed that of the mere boy Octavian, in spite of the latter's being Julius Caesar's heir.
Mark Antony had taken over the eastern part of the Roman empire after he and Octavian had eliminated the enemies of Caesar and all other opposition. There Antony took up--scandalously for Roman taste--with the ambitious Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. Earlier, Cleopatra had taken up with Julius Caesar and seemed eager to consolidate her position through using Antony and a trump card: Caesarion, "little Caesar," a bastard son of Julius Caesar and potentially a rival to Octavian, the adopted son of Caesar. After defeating Antony and Cleopatra, Caesarion was killed on Octavian's orders--another "fratricide" that might remind us of Romulus and Remus.
In order to consolidate his own popular support in Italy, Octavian made sure to use Cleopatra as a way of turning public opinion against Mark Antony. This is evident in Vergil's description, where barbaric forces are pitted against the Roman Augustus and Agrippa. The dog-headed Egyptian god Anubis and the "monster forms / Of gods of every race" fight against the Olympian gods. These foreigners are put to flight by the intervention of Apollo, whose temple near the battle site of Actium became the center of commemorative games. Now do you see why Aeneas stopped by Actium in Book 3 (p. 75)? He dedicates a shield taken in combat from the Greek Abas in the temple there. Actium on the shield reflects the shield Aeneas dedicates at Actium.
From there the shield depicts a real historical event, the triple Triumph of Augustus celebrated in 29 BCE, for Actium, the conquest of Illyricum, and the conquest of Egypt. The lavishness of these celebrations surpassed all previous triumphs, and initiated the idea that a new age of order had begun, with all foreign (and domestic) enemies subdued. It is important to understand that the processional nature of this scene reflects the real processions in Roman triumphs, which were sacred parades for the returning and victorious Roman armies. These were moments when the captive kings and princes were paraded for Romans to see; the wealth seized was put on display, which included enslaved enemies, now property of the Roman people. Not only was this a moment of greatest glory for any Roman general, but it was also a moment when even the common people of Rome had a real taste of their own power as a nation. Historians assume Cleopatra committed suicide to spare herself the indignity of being paraded about in the triumph, an object of sport and contempt for the Roman people.
It took some months after Actium to finally defeat Antony and Cleopatra, but Augustan propaganda liked to make that sea battle pivotal in the course of Roman history. Similarly, the triple triumph seems the culmination of a process that ends decades of civil war (and effectively, the old Republican constitution). Whereas the shield of Achilles works by cosmic rhythms and anonymous types, the shield of Aeneas compresses all of history to a center, a point. And this is what Aeneas bears into battle.